Recording a rural past


Vines sprouting new leaves poked from beneath the warped, weathered siding of Cider Mill Farm's oldest buildings, as architectural historians Alice Morrison Mordoh and Tom Reinhart examined them under a bright but chilly spring sun.

Quiet now but for the occasional loud braying of a donkey, the Elkridge cider and pie-making farm that once attracted thousands of families awaits auction and demolition -- and a future as a development of 94 expensive suburban homes. It was revealed late last month that the farm will not reopen to the public.

Mordoh, who works for Howard County, and Reinhart, of the Maryland Historical Society, are documenting, measuring and photographing what is fast becoming a rare artifact in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- a small farm.

Where most people would see dilapidated sheds, machines and their parts, they saw something else during a tour of the 59-acre Cider Mill Farm last week.

"I see a whole story of the life of the people, a whole culture" as told by what they did, what they built and what they used -- not what they wrote, said Mordoh, who holds a doctorate in folk life studies.

"Historical documents tend to be written by the elite. Artifacts tell about the other 95 percent of the people," she said. "It makes me sad to see the lack of respect people have for what their ancestors did."

An unpainted little house similar to one examined at Cider Mill might look like a relic now, but 75 or 100 years ago it could have been a "very respectable" farm home, Mordoh said. She was thrilled to find several old apple-picking ladders in the rafters above the fruit storage barn. The heavy wooden ladders bend to a peak at one end for propping against trees.

"Those are very cool," she said, explaining that the ladders show "the way we function. It's a real example of the old tradition that still is used."

Reinhart said the individual pieces of a place such as Cider Mill -- the siding, windows, doors, lumber, machinery, stainless storage tanks -- are not of much significance. The siding one day might adorn someone's family-room accent wall, he said. But "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That's the tragedy of losing a farm complex. When you lose that, you lose an irreplaceable resource."

Zhen Owens, wife of Tom Owens, the family-owned farm's operator since 1970, said her husband "put his whole life into this," though he has been incapacitated in a nursing home after a stroke two years ago. His mother, Elsie Owens, who lived in a 1920s white bungalow at the farm, died last year.

Patrick Merkle, Zhen Owens' attorney, said the petting zoo animals will be sold as soon as possible and the buildings and their contents will be auctioned, perhaps next month. Zhen Owens feeds the animals daily, she said, since laying off the farm's manager, Cheryl Nodar.

The son of a founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Frederick Kelly, started Cider Mill Farm in 1916 on Landing Road in a hilly section of Elkridge. Kelly planted 5,000 apple trees. When they began producing fruit, he built a cider mill that attracted farmers who hauled their apples in horse-drawn wagons.

The mill operated through the years until closing in 1969. The Owens family purchased it the next year and began operations anew. The family later added a petting zoo for children, who could also try milking a cow.

Today, Elkridge residents -- distressed about the sale and sudden closing of the farm -- are trying to find a way to buy the farm's machinery and relocate it.

"I can't say how much Cider Mill Farm means. Some provision needs to be made to bring farming to eastern Howard County. This is the last touchstone and it will be gone," Cathy Hudson of Elkridge told the Howard County Council at a meeting last month.

During last week's tour -- as part-time farm worker Thomas Jones of Columbia made some minor repairs while watching over his son Ryan, 1 -- Reinhart and Mordoh debated the age of windows based on whether the glass is secured by pushpins or nails. They also noted the ceramic electrical outlets and an old Fire King gas stove, with the apple picking ladders, two wood stoves and shelves of other items in the apple barn attic.

The juice-making machinery sat, ready, in another building.

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